Friday, August 21, 2009

What, Then, Does "Dialogue" Mean?

I suppose many of us have heard of the recent clarification issued by the doctrine committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to the document "Reflections on Covenant and Mission." This document, while not an official document of the USCCB, was written by Jewish and Catholic leaders involved in interfaith dialogue, the Catholic leaders being advisors to the USCCB's Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. This new clarification from the USCCB states that this document "contains some statements that are insufficiently precise and potentially misleading," principally those statements dealing with evangelization and the Jewish people. In short, this document presented a "diminished notion of evangelization" in lacking any affirmation of the central role of evangelization in the Church's mission. Allow me to quote at length two passages:

Reflections on Covenant and Mission maintains that a definition of evangelization as the
"invitation to a commitment of faith in Jesus Christ and to entry through baptism into the
community of believers which is the Church" is a "very narrow construal" of her mission.8 In its effort to present a broader and fuller conception of evangelization, however, the document
develops a vision of it in which the core elements of proclamation and invitation to life in Christ seem virtually to disappear. For example, Reflections on Covenant and Mission proposes interreligious dialogue as a form of evangelization that is "a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism." Though Christian participation in interreligious dialogue would not normally include an explicit invitation to baptism and entrance into the Church, the Christian dialogue partner is always giving witness to the following of Christ, to which all are implicitly invited.
. . . . . . .
Reflections on Covenant and Mission, however, renders even the possibility of individual
conversion doubtful by a further statement that implies it is generally not good for Jews to
convert, nor for Catholics to do anything that might lead Jews to conversion because it threatens to eliminate "the distinctive Jewish witness": "Their [the Jewish people's] witness to the kingdom, which did not originate with the Church's experience of Christ crucified and raised, must not be curtailed by seeking the conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity." Some caution should be introduced here, since this line of reasoning could lead some to conclude mistakenly that Jews have an obligation not to become Christian and that the Church has a corresponding obligation not to baptize Jews.

This clarification has aroused outcries from major Jewish organizations, who stated that this clarification is "antithetical to the very essence of Jewish-Christian dialogue as we have understood it," because if the goal of dialogue is to convert Jews, then dialogue becomes "untenable." The ADL says that this clarification represents "an objectionable understanding of Jewish-Catholic relations," principally because it reaffirms the obligation of Jews to convert and of the Church to baptize Jews. According to the ADL, even merely using dialogue as a means to invite Jews to Christian baptism is "unacceptable," because it "would foster mistrust between Jews and Catholics and undermine years of work building a positive relationship based on mutual trust and respect of our differences in faith."

I ask: What, then, does "dialogue" mean? Is it merely presenting our religious views to each other? In other words, is it merely clarificatory? Under what impression have the ADL and the Jewish groups involved in interfaith dialogue been all these years? It is quite clear that at least the ADL has assumed that such dialogue has as its purpose the fighting of anti-Semitism and recognition of the validity of the Jewish religion (in other words, the aim of such dialogue is that of the ADL itself).

It seems obvious to me that this entire episode -- the original Jewish-Catholic document "Reflections," the recent clarification by the USCCB, and the reaction of the major Jewish groups -- reveals something fundamentally important: we have not conveyed to our "partners in dialogue" what true ecumenism is. True ecumenism cannot take place outside the Church's mission to evangelize, and therefore it is part and parcel of evangelization. I would venture to say that true ecumenism is always evangelization, properly, appropriately, charitably done.

The more fundamental problem here can easily go unnoticed, but allow me to draw it out. The divergence here between the true Catholic understanding of dialogue and ecumenism and the understanding of the ADL and the other protesting Jewish groups is radical and perhaps insurmountable: it is a problem of the order of goods. The Catholic understanding presupposes that the greatest good is life with God forever, and that therefore no earthly good (including [false] "tolerance" and "respect") ought to curtail the Church's evangelizing of all peoples. Dialogue with non-Catholics, then, always looks to this greatest good, as a precept of charity. For the ADL and the other protesting Jewish groups, it seems that the fundamental goal of dialogue is not helping each other along the way to eternal salvation, but rather an understanding of and respect for each other's views, to which evangelizing is, according to them, directly contrary. Tolerance, understanding, and respect are the end of dialogue, not one's eternal salvation. Now whatever their reasons for this different understanding (and we, as Catholics, must understand that this difference is to be expected), this very divergence tends to vitiate interfaith dialogue itself, for the ultimate end of dialogue for us -- evangelization, witness to Christ -- runs counter to the end of dialogue as they construe it. Even if the dialogue is explicitly circumscribed within very narrow limits -- say, the Church in India is in dialogue with leaders of the Hindi religion for the sake of promoting those goods that both religions hold in common -- even within these limits, dialogue always is evangelical: as Catholics we must always witness to Christ. And the very fact that we must always so witness will irk those for whom religion is not a matter of eternal salvation and damnation and those for whom religion is merely subjective.

A final thought: this episode bears witness to the "Emperor's new clothes" character of ecumenism as it is often trumpeted and practiced, at least in this country. Where have we gotten, if our "partners in dialogue" don't even recognize WHY we are in dialogue with them?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Snippets from St. Thomas and his Commentators

After a long hiatus, a very interesting set of statements from St. Thomas Aquinas concerning property, the rich and the poor, and natural law:

The Lord requires us to give to the poor not only the tenth part, but all of our superfluous wealth.

- St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, quoted in St. Robert Bellarmine's work "The Art of Dying Well," trans. John Dalton, p. 26

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. Now according to the natural order established by Divine Providence, inferior things are ordained for the purpose of succoring man's needs by their means. Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man's needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose [Loc. cit., 2, Objection 3] says, and his words are embodied in the Decretals (Dist. xlvii, can. Sicut ii): "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom."
Since, however, there are many who are in need, while it is impossible for all to be succored by means of the same thing, each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need. Nevertheless, if the need be so manifest and urgent, that it is evident that the present need must be remedied by whatever means be at hand (for instance when a person is in some imminent danger, and there is no other possible remedy), then it is lawful for a man to succor his own need by means of another's property, by taking it either openly or secretly: nor is this properly speaking theft or robbery.

St. Thomas, Summa Theologiae, II-IIae, Question 66, article 7: "Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?" (emphasis mine)

In these two texts, St. Thomas does not address the role of government in the distribution of wealth, so one could argue, from these texts alone, that St. Thomas is speaking only of moral, not legal obligation, and that therefore this has no bearing on the role of government. This would be further enforced by St. Thomas' own distinction between what is legally due and what is morally due.

However, the greatest of Thomistic commentators, Cardinal Cajetan, glosses St. Thomas' discussion of covetousness in these words:

Now what a ruler can do in virtue of his office, so that justice may be served in the matter of riches, is to take from someone who is unwilling to dispense from what is superfluous for life or state, and to distribute it to the poor. In this way he just takes away the dispensation power of the rich man to whom the wealth has been entrusted because he is not worthy. For according to the teaching of the saints, the riches that are superfluous do not belong to the rich man as his own but rather to the one appointed by God as dispenser, so that he can have the merit of a good dispensation.

- Cardinal Cajetan, "Commentary on the Summa Theologica," vol. 6, II-II, 118.3, quoted in

There is a substantial corpus of works from the 13th - 16th centuries, written by Catholic scholars (many of them Thomists) on the nature and role of money and property, the right to property, and the problem of the poor. Would that these works were made more widely available!

Anyway, there is room for questioning the general (neo-) conservative position on the role of government vis-a-vis private property, viz., that the redistribution of wealth is nothing short of socialism and therefore intrinsically opprobrious. Is this position indeed Catholic? Is it Christian?

I invite your thoughts and comments.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Archbishop Burke on Canon 915: Communion and Politicians

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, interviewed Archbishop Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura and thereby the Church's foremost canon lawyer, on Canon 915. The interview was shown today, at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Here is the transcript of that interview.

Archbishop Burke makes some very pointed remarks. One example:

"And so I would encourage the faithful when they are scandalized by the giving of Holy Communion to persons [who] are publicly and obstinately in sin, that they go to their pastors, whether it’s their parish priest or to their bishop, to insist that this scandal stop. Because, it is weakening the faith of everyone. It’s giving the impression that it must be morally correct to support procured abortion, in at least in some circumstances, if not also generally. So they need to insist that their parish priest and the bishops, and for the rest…to my brother bishops and brother priests…simply to say: the service of the Church in the world today has to begin first and foremost with the protection of the life of those who are the most defenseless and the most innocent, namely the unborn . . ."

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Benedict XVI and Africa

Now, normally I wouldn't recommend reading anything remotely connected with National Catholic Reporter. However, John Allen usually has some insightful nuggets, and a recent article is no exception. Here's an excerpt:

"He [Benedict XVI] did no more than repeat church teaching on contraception, as well as the nearly unanimous view of every African bishop I've ever interviewed: that condoms give their people a false sense of invulnerability, thereby encouraging risky sexual behavior. That may be debatable, but one can hardly fault the pope for taking his cues from the bishops on the ground. (Ironically, popes usually get in trouble precisely for not listening to local bishops.)"


If you want to read the entire article, here you go.

One thought on the media frenzy following Benedict's remarks on AIDS and condoms. Let's start at ground zero. We're trying to eradicate AIDS. AIDS is passed on, primarily but not exclusively, by sex. The more often one infected with AIDS has sex -- and exponentially, the more sexual partners one has -- the greater number of people are infected. So the obvious remedies are to reduce sexual partners or even stop having sex, period (abstinence). Now, why do neither of these options even get much coverage? Because we have condoms. So the remedy proposed by the secular world is to distribute condoms to as many people as possible. Think about what they're proposing as the solution to the problem: you can have your cake (not spread AIDS) and eat it, too (have sex when you want), except for that nasty little fact that x% of the time condoms don't prevent someone from transmitting AIDS. So keep having sex -- you'll be infecting many fewer people than if you didn't use a condom, so you can feel good about doing your part in stopping the spread of AIDS.

Abstinence = absolutely no chance of spreading AIDS through sexual activity.
Condoms = some chance of spreading AIDS through sexual activity.

And the secular world chooses the latter why? Because "those people aren't going to give up sex, so we have to do the next best thing." These "people" who are infected with AIDS and are sexually active are "problems" that must be solved by shipping them condoms; this doesn't change the culture of sexual promiscuity, it just reduces the horrible consequences while allowing and indeed feeding the cause of these horrible consequences. It's a bandaid, an intrinsically and necessarily temporary stopgap.

But, the secular world chooses it because it's much easier than educating these people as humans so that they lead a better way of life, even a way of self-sacrifice for the sake of their neighbor, one that cuts at the core of the culture of sexual promiscuity and thereby eradicates the very cause of the problem at hand.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Liberty of Conscience in "Dignitatis Humanae"

One of the most important topics today in theology has been, for me, the question of religious freedom. How to understand pre-Vatican II, Vatican II, and post-Vatican II statements on this topic is a consuming interest of mine, primarily because it was this topic above all that stood in the way (as it then seemed to me) of my return to the Church from the SSPX movement. Overcoming this intellectual hurdle, or, rather, dissolving it (allow me to explain the distinction in a future post), was the last step in my return to the Church.

This post comprises the introduction and first section of a paper I wrote several years after my return to the Church, while I was a graduate student at the Catholic University of America. The remainder of the paper will be posted in segments over the next week or so.

Obviously, I make no claims to theological originality or to interpreting officially the Church documents under consideration: this is merely one Catholic's understanding of the Church's teaching on religious freedom as it is expressed in several documents. A further caveat: I may not agree with everything I have written here.

Comments are welcome, keeping in mind, of course, that in any intellectual conversation we must strive together for the victory of truth (to paraphrase Josef Pieper) rather than seek to vanquish each other in debate.

The Church and Liberty of Conscience:

From Gregory XVI to the Second Vatican Council

In the last several centuries of Western Civilization, the role of the idea of liberty of conscience can hardly be exaggerated. Indeed, it is probably the most fundamental touchstone of Modernity. Because of this prime significance it held (and continues to hold) in modern culture, it became a substantial issue also for Catholicism, most notably perhaps in the 19th and 20th centuries. Over the last 175 years, there have been several momentous responses on the part of the Church to the modern notion of liberty of conscience, beginning with Gregory XVI’s Mirari Vos and continuing even to the present day.

However, the consistency of the Church’s position on this issue is not made evident upon reading these responses. In fact, many would claim that the Church reversed its teaching with the landmark Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae. Such a claim, though, must be substantiated and not based merely on stereotypical views of pre-Vatican II Catholicism or superficial readings of 19th century papal documents, because a true reversal in teaching is rare in the Church, and impossible, if it is a question of faith or morals.[1] A close reading of important documents of this period – Mirari Vos, Quanta Cura, Libertas Praestantissimum, and Dignitatis Humanae – is required to see the continuity, in the past two centuries, of Church teaching on liberty of conscience.

I must make one methodological point: I do not propose to treat of liberty of conscience insofar as it relates to public expression or dissemination of one’s beliefs. I grant that the question of freedom of expression (a part of which is liberty of the press) is intimately related to that of liberty of conscience. However, determining the continuity of Church teaching on liberty of conscience as well as freedom of expression (and liberty of the press) would require a much more lengthy analysis than is possible here. Thus, I will restrict my analysis to the treatment of liberty of conscience in the four above-mentioned Church documents.


There are several principles of interpretation in this inquiry. Firstly, we must, from the outset of our interpretation, presume continuity of teaching among these Church documents, for Dignitatis Humanae states that its exposition of human freedom “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.”[2] This must therefore be kept in mind when comparing Dignitatis Humanae with the earlier documents.

Secondly, the extent of the role of historical context must be delineated, not only the historical circumstances surrounding the issuance of the document, but also its purpose (with all its attenuating historical contingencies). It has already been said that this paper will attempt to judge the continuity of these several documents. In itself, this relates only to the content of the documents, i.e., their actual teaching on the issue of liberty of conscience. Thus, the historical background or context is only pertinent insofar as it makes up a part of this teaching. Now the purpose of the document is clearly of highest importance; yet, the purpose may be gained from the document itself without resort to external historical sources. Thus, only whatever historical context is given in the document will demand our attention.[3] The remote motive cause of the document (e.g., the historical occurrence or movement that prompted the author to write it) is only to be considered insofar as it is inseparably bound with the purpose.[4]

[1] I have no intention of judging here the status of the documents under consideration, as regards their binding force upon Catholics of not only their own time, but of all times. Whether or not these documents are protected by infallibility is not something I wish to determine here, nor feel able to determine. The question is simply one of continuity in teaching, apart from the entanglements of whether this document or that one fall under the heading of faith and morals, and if so, whether they constitute private teaching (the Pope as private theologian) or infallible declaration (the Pope as pastor of the universal Church, either ordinary or extraordinary magisterium). Though I do admit that this question of doctrinal status is quite important, this paper is merely a preliminary, though meticulous, examination of these texts and judgment as to their continuity; determining their doctrinal status would require not only more time and space, but also another line of inquiry.

[2] Vatican Council II, Trans. Laurence Ryan, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Ed. Austin Flannery, O.P. (Boston, MA: St. Paul Editions, 1980), p. 800, section #1.

[3] Obviously, this approach to interpretation grants a good deal to the author of the document: it assumes that whatever is needed for the understanding of the document was included by the author in the document itself, that he left nothing out that is needed for the reader to grasp his argument. I believe, however, that this is not merely the safest but also the most objective way to approach the work, for it puts the reader in the position of learner, a receptive state, whereas going over and beyond the document to grasp its arguments can easily lead to imposing outside facts or ideas onto the document, facts or ideas which may or may not have been instrumental in the author’s argumentation. In this way the interpretation of the work would be distorted by unwarranted assumptions. It is an intellectual curiosity that the distinction between these two approaches is analogous to the distinction between Aristotelian and Kantian epistemology, respectively.

[4] As we will see, the historical circumstances that prompted the writing of these Church documents are often mentioned by their authors.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Pope, The Holocaust, and The Bishop

For all the mountains of reports, commentaries, and op-eds about Benedict XVI's lifting of the excommunication of the 4 SSPX bishops, it's really a rather simple situation.

(1) The SSPX has a significant following, consisting of people and clergy who hold fast to just about everything the Church teaches, value the past and tradition, and try to achieve holiness according to the spirituality of the Church. Bringing the SSPX back into communion with the Church would therefore be a great good indeed.

(2) Lifting the excommunication of the 4 bishops was the next step in achieving this communion (the motu proprio "Summorum Pontificum" being the first major step).

(3) One of these 4 bishops -- Bishop Williamson -- happens to believe that only a few hundred thousand Jews died in the Holocaust and that there were no gas chambers.

(4) To be a Catholic, one need only adhere to the Catholic faith and remain in communion with the Catholic Church. One can be a Catholic and maintain that diet pills are the best method of losing weight, or that subatomic particles are figments of modern science's imagination, or that Julius Caesar never existed, or that "only" a few hundred thousand Jews died in the Holocaust. These views are all wrong -- some benignly so, others maliciously so. Bishop Williamson's opinion about the Jews and the Holocaust is regrettable, nonsensical, offensive, reprehensible -- but not contrary to the deposit of the Catholic faith. Abe Foxman's insulting statement that the Church must restore Bishop Williamson's prior state of excommunication in order that "the matter of the church and Holocaust denial [be] solved" betrays an ignorance that is astounding.

(5) A Catholic bishop must not give scandal by publicly airing reprehensible opinions. Therefore the Vatican has given Bishop Williamson an ultimatum, stating that he must distance himself from his statements as a pre-requisite for being "admitted to episcopal functions within the Church."

That's it. There's no "litmus test," vis-a-vis affirmation of the historicity of the Holocaust, for aspiring Catholics. But there is for aspiring bishops who have publicly maintained the contrary. Why? Because rejecting the historicity of the Holocaust, while not intrinsically inimical to the act of faith, is a cause of grave scandal and therefore unacceptable coming from one who holds public office in the Church. In the final analysis, rejecting the historicity of the Holocaust is not a question of theological belief; rather, it's a question of causing grave scandal.

Why do critics on both sides -- the modernist/secular camp (e.g., Abe Foxman) and the SSPX camp (e.g., True Restoration II) -- fail to see this?

Rumblings from the Dissident Modernist Movement

The ignorance and lack of reflection displayed by dissident Catholic theologians never ceases to amaze. Benedict XVI's lifting of the excommunication of the 4 SSPX bishops resulted in much modernist wailing and gnashing of teeth. As an example of this, read a recent statement circulating that seeks to instruct the Pope on the conditions for admission into communion with the Catholic Church:

The very first sentence of the petition is ample proof of ignorance of basic facts relative to the recent action of the Pope:

"The papal cancellation of the excommunication of bishops from The Society of St. Pius X signifies the reception into full communion with the See of Rome those who have consistently opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council."

Contrast this with the actual Vatican document lifting the excommunications:

It is hoped that this step be followed by the prompt accomplishment of full communion with the Church of the entire Fraternity of Saint Pius X." (Thanks to Rorate Caeli for the translation.)

Full communion of the SSPX bishops with the Catholic Church has NOT been achieved, and the opening sentence of this petition fails to recognize even this basic fact.

Let us keep reading:

"We believe that the close correlation between the excommunication’s cancellation and the 50th anniversary of the calling of a General Council of the Church by Blessed Pope John XXIII gives a clear indication of the direction which the present Papacy wishes to take. We sense a desire to return to a pre Vatican II Church with its fear of openness to the breath of the Holy Spirit, a positive appreciation of ‘the signs of the times’, and the values of democratic institutions.

We are very concerned that this act of rehabilitation heralds a turn-around on important documents of Vatican II, for example, the decree on ecumenism “Unitatis Redintegratio”, the declaration on non-Christian religions “Nostra Aetate”, the declaration on religious liberty “Dignitatis Humanae” and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “Gaudium et Spes”. Such an act will have a disastrous effect on the credibility of the Roman-Catholic Church. For Catholics who love their Church, the price is too high!"

Fear permeates these words. Ecumenism is all well and good until the other party in dialogue threatens modernist presuppositions. Who are the ones who REALLY fear "openness to the breath of the Holy Spirit?" These petitioners ignore explicit Vatican statements affirming the non-negotiability of the teachings of Vatican II, claiming that in fact Benedict's action is indicative of a negation of the developments of Vatican II. What they really mean is that Benedict's action is indicative of a rejection of the modernist understanding and misappropriation of the developments of Vatican II, which is, by the way, also false (although OTHER actions or words of Benedict XVI do so indicate).

Furthermore, the characterization of the fictitious "pre-Vatican II Church" is absurdly trite and false. Despite what they may think, the "breath of the Holy Spirit" is NOT synonymous with "radical dogmatic change," and democratic institutions and their values were NOT the object of magisterial condemnation prior to Vatican II. (Any of the petitioners read Leo XIII? Anyone?)

The petition ends in these words:

"The Church of Rome, perceived as the Barque of St. Peter, lists heavily as long as the Vatican: only rehabilitates the "lost sheep" at the traditionalist edge of the Church, and makes no similar offer to other excommunicated or marginalised Catholics; persists in preventing progressive theologians from teaching; refuses dialogue with all movements in the Church."

Allow me an argument by analogy: If I am convinced that there is only one best way to play the game of golf, and if I am also convinced that I know this "best method," I may start a school to teach students the best way to play golf. If I hire teachers to help teach this to the students, do I not have the right to fire a teacher who insists that he has a DIFFERENT and BETTER way to play the grand old game? In fact, doesn't such a teacher undermine the entire project of my school? I have the best method, not the teacher I've hired. Of course, I may be wrong and the teacher right . . . unless I am infallible in matters of golf-playing, in which case I have the right and the DUTY of firing that teacher, for the good of the students who pay me so that they can play the game of golf as well as possible. In like manner, the Pope has both the right and the duty of "preventing progressive theologians from teaching," assuming, of course, as one ought, that "progressive" means "not bound to past definitive teachings of the Church."

The last straw: the petition is signed "We Are Church UK 5 February 2009." Need I say more.